Virtualization Helps Modernize IT Infrastructure

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2016-03-07 Email Print this article Print

Rent-A-Center, a rent-to-own firm, uses virtualization and a software-defined approach to dynamically configure compute, network, storage and security resources.

More than 90 percent of large enterprises now rely on some form of server virtualization, and the numbers continue to grow. For Rent-A-Center, a national furniture and electronics rent-to-own firm based in Plano, Texas, virtualization is now at the center of IT and the business. The company currently operates approximately 3,000 stores across the United States, and it works with several retail partners that direct customers to the company.

In recent years, the company has relied on a somewhat antiquated IT infrastructure. "Many of the systems are 10 or 15 years old," notes Christi Liebe, vice president and CTO. During that time, "We have experienced tremendous data growth, and, as we have added components, we have faced challenges in getting everything to work together effectively."

The infrastructure includes point-of-sale (POS) and inventory management systems, which are heavily dependent on COBOL-based code. The company is currently in the process of migrating from its legacy architecture, where data is stored on local servers in stores, to a central data center at its headquarters.

Implementing a Server Virtualization Strategy

In order to address these challenges, Rent-A-Center turned to a server virtualization strategy. Working with IT consulting and solutions firm Möbius Partners, it opted to deploy VMware, along with a software-defined approach that allows the company to dynamically configure compute, network, storage and security resources to meet the highly specialized needs of different businesses and units.

The migration began in the second quarter of 2015 and is continuing in different phases. The company currently operates a virtual machine for each of its 3,000 brick-and-mortar stores. Overall, it uses 100 Cisco UCS servers and 54 HPE blade servers—all two-socket boxes.

As hardware and application upgrades take place as part of its modernization effort, the payoff is significant. "The VMware tools help us tremendously with agility and speed," Liebe reports. "We no longer have to stand up servers and manually configure them. We have a consistent image that is set up as a catalog item. It's pushbutton provisioning."

In the past, when the firm provisioned servers manually, the IT team could tackle only about five deployments per week. Now, however, it is able to handle approximately 100 stores per day—and with fewer demands on IT staff.

Liebe estimates that the overall reduction in time demands hovers around 85 percent. In addition, Rent-A-Center has greatly reduced errors through the automated approach to provisioning, which has magnified productivity gains for the IT staff and the business in general.

The initiative is allowing the company to speed the adoption of new tools and technologies that revolve around digital business. These include a more modern POS and payment environment that incorporates chip-based credit cards using the EMV standard, along with improved data and analytics capabilities. The company also has realized greater IT efficiencies that lead to reduced demands for servers, storage and other hardware, along with improved disaster recovery.

Liebe reports that Rent-A-Center is now looking into adding bursting capabilities through vCloud. That would provide a far more dynamic environment during high-volume periods, such as Black Friday.

Samuel Greengard writes about business and technology for Baseline, CIO Insight and other publications. His most recent book is The Internet of Things (MIT Press, 2015).

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